Sid Meier's name is synonymous with some of the biggest, most well loved PC games from the last 25 years. Civilization, Colonization, Alpha Centauri, Railroad Tycoon and Pirates! have all stood the test of time and are considered classics - even if sometimes his name was sometimes added to a game's title despite him not being the lead designer. His legacy is deep rooted in the history of PC games, and in this title he joined heads with another hugely influential designer, Will Wright, to bring us a game about building your very own golf course. Somehow, though, this one is hardly remembered at all. I had played the demo years ago, but finding an actual copy for sale took some searching on ebay earlier this year. Having played the full game, I have to see I am glad I picked it up.
Sid Meier's SimGolf features two different styles of gameplay which manage to work perfectly together in a way one rarely sees in a game. When you start your new resort, you find that all you have is a clubhouse with not a single hole for players to try out. Immediately your task becomes build a fun golf course for your guests to play, which is handled with very simple, easy to use tools. It's just like building your house in The Sims - in fact, anybody who has played The Sims will instantly recognize where the interface for this game comes from.
This is all fairly standard stuff - building and managing a facility is the norm for many sim type games - but where this stands out is that you can grab your custom golf pro character and play a round on the course you just built. It's not a hugely detailed golf sim; in fact it's quite simple, but in a very clever way. The best way to figure out exactly how much fun the latest hole you designed is to play it yourself, and when you find yourself unable to make a shot, you can go and fix that - which not only makes it more fun for you to play next time, but also makes your guests like your course more, and therefore give you more money.
Completing various tasks gives you experience points to spend on your golf pro's stats, making him or her a better golfer, and therefore allowing you to play bigger and more precise shots, which opens up whole new design avenues for you to consider. You'll also earn the ability to challenge other pros to a round, earning money if you win, and eventually host various tournaments, which can earn you even more. All of this earns you more money so that you can go and add more to your course.
The graphics have the lovely colourful charm that was so iconic of the pre-rendered 3D of this time, and you have a choice of 4 different settings to build your dream golf course in. At first I was quite doubtful of how well a golf game would work from this viewpoint, and thought it might be a cheap minigolf style game, but it actually work surprisingly well with these graphics. The characters emote their feelings with cute animations, there are little animals that wander the course and get started, balloons fly overhead - considering its age, it still holds up pretty well despite the 800x600 resolution. Considering how badly some of the other games of this era have aged, SimGolf looks positively delightful.
On top of the course designing and golf playing, you have staff to keep the course neat and the guests happy, important golfers who will approve the purchase of land, donate a beneficial landmark or give you money if they have a good time at your course, golfers who will purchase housing blocks on your course for a fee, various buildings you can buy that will provide bonuses to your course, scenery you can decorate your course with, which will also keep golfers happy... there's plenty here to keep you busy between the meat and potatoes of designing new holes and playing your way through them.
The only real problem I have with Sid Meier's SimGolf is... well, it feels a little rushed in spots. Characters speak their thoughts, and some of them have very obvious typos in their lines. The graphics sometimes glitch a little, leaving you wondering why there's a black void where a cliff wall ought to be. Objects sometime get in the way of your ball despite being shorter than its trajectory, making it seem like your ball just bounced off air. Other than this, and the fact that the game will only run in 800x600, the engine runs perfectly even on Windows 7, meaning it's super easy to go back in time and sample this delightful old gem - provided you're willing to find a copy on ebay.
There's enough here to keep your attention for hours. Sid Meier's SimGolf may not have the superstar status of some of the other games that Sid Meier and Will Wright designed, but it's absolutely worth your time. It's clever, unique, addictive and charming, and mixes two styles of play so seamlessly that it really is a game of two different halves. I'd like more modern designers to take note from this and see that if done right, a game can span more than one style of gameplay without feeling cheap. It may be 10 years old, but this forgotten little gem still seems fresh today.